The Next Generation of Local Theater

I’ve been a theater critic for almost three decades. I’m an optimist: I routinely attend shows hoping to be pleased or surprised. Doesn’t always happen, of course, but I keep going back. Maybe that’s a little crazy, but I’ve kept at it for all these year

I’ve been a theater critic for almost three decades. I’m an optimist: I routinely attend shows hoping to be pleased or surprised. Doesn’t always happen, of course, but I keep going back. Maybe that’s a little crazy, but I’ve kept at it for all these years because our Cincinnati theater scene gets better and better, and I want everyone to hear about it.

Last Friday I was reminded of another reason that keeps me coming back: I attended the awards program for high school theater, the Cappies of Greater Cincinnati. There were roughly 1,500 people at the Aronoff Center. Kids cheered (well, many of them shrieked) for their friends; parents and siblings stood up for their family members who were being honored. Stunned recipients of awards made little impromptu speeches, thanking their families, their directors and their fellow performers. Once in awhile, someone yelled, “We love you.” Their youthful energy was infectious, and their talent was evident.

The evening was a veritable love fest. It featured performances on the Aronoff’s big stage by students from many of the 21 area high schools in the Cappies program. This venture doesn’t get nearly the buzz focused on high school sports, even though these kids work just as hard and put in as much or more time. But the program has fostered camaraderie as well as good-natured competition: The kids congratulated other schools’ shows and applauded outstanding vocal performances — musicals were more prevalent than plays — regardless of whether they came from Gallatin County or William Mason high schools.

The Cappies depend on critics: Writers from each high school go to other schools to watch and critique productions and individual performances. That’s how the awards handed out last Friday were decided. It’s a great concept, and I’ve tried to help it be even better. For several years, I’ve been part of a training session for student critics and given them my perspective on how to assess shows.

It was my honor this year to hand out an award selected from a field of six “critic teams,” with writers from schools deemed to have done a great job in analyzing performances: nominated were Cincinnati Christian Schools, Colerain High School, Loveland High School, William Mason High School, Taylor High School and the award recipient, Highlands High School.

Then I participated in a new Cappies award, this one for an outstanding critique. I was provided with a half-dozen critiques considered to be the best written this year and asked to rank them. I had no idea who had written each one or which high school they attended. Several of the pieces evaluated productions of well-known shows, but I was especially drawn to a review of one staged at Gallatin County High School, an old-fashioned melodrama, Because Their Hearts Were Pure, or The Secret of the Mine. The writer assessed the virtues of an unfamiliar (and admittedly silly) story with some meaningful insights. When I opened the envelop for the recipient I learned that it was Bridget Nicholas, a student at Scott High School in Taylor Mill, Ky. (Read her review here.) 

As part of her recognition, I’ve invited Nicholas to join the team of writers I assemble annually to cover the Cincinnati Fringe Festival, kicking off this week. She’ll write about one of four Fringe Next shows, produced at the School for Creative and Performing Arts on Wednesday through Saturday evenings. Once her review is finished, you’ll find it on the Fringe page at

For those interested in the annual Fringe Festival, Nicholas and other CityBeat contributors will attend the first performance of each Fringe production and write overnight reviews to help you decide which shows to see. The CityBeat review crew includes Jane Durrell, a contributor most often of visual arts coverage; several local theater veterans including Ed Cohen, Joe Gorman, Nicholas Korn and Rodger Pille; playwright Joe McDonough; Bart Bishop, who teaches writing at Cincinnati State; Julie Mullins and Kathy Valin, who often write about dance locally; and Stacy Sims and I, who regularly cover theater for CityBeat. It’s a big undertaking, but it’s a way we build greater interest in local theater. 

I’m guessing that kids involved in Cappie Award-winning productions including the play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) at SCPA and the musical Children of Eden at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy will be involved in future Fringe shows or productions on local stages. Those of us who are critics will be writing about them. Stay tuned for more.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]

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